Some thoughts on Monocle’s 2014 Quality of Life Survey

Monocle’s annual Quality of Life survey for 2014 is out, so where is the best place to live in the world?  The survey considers multiple elements and measures, from the directly measurable, such as public transport quality and costs, crime and unemployment  rates, the number of book shops or museums and galleries, or the amount of rubbish recycled, sunshine hours and green space, to some perhaps less tangible, including perceptions of tolerance.  Monocle’s result: Copenhagen is on top (a position it also held in 2013).  Tokyo ranked number 2 (uniquely, Japan actually has three cities in the top ten), and Melbourne is ranked number 3 – another blow to Sydney in the perpetual battle between Australia’s two biggest cities for bragging rights (Sydney ranked number 11).

Many of the cities on the list will not surprise, and perhaps even more interesting, therefore, are the cities we think of as being great places to live that do not make the list.  Truly global cities such as London or New York, for example, do not appear.  In the case of London, Monocle explain that while the city may have nightlife and culture, house prices are increasingly high and issues exist around trust of law enforcement agencies.  Significantly, but not unexpectedly, no cities from Africa or Central and South America are included.  I say not unexpectedly given the parameters considered in this survey.  Brazil, for example, may have cities world-famous for nightlife and a suite of new infrastructure developments associated with the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but notoriously high crime rates and a less than liberal attitude to same-sex marriage prevent its cities from making the Monocle list.

While I think the survey could gain more credibility by providing more information on methods and metrics, and is quite obviously flawed in a number of ways (the extreme bias of wealthier western-world views is probably the most notable. But let’s be fair, who is the target market of the magazine after all?), I like this survey a lot.  I like it not particularly for the list itself, though this is interesting, but more for the concept.  The Monocle Quality of Life Survey, not unlike similar surveys, encourages me to consider what we value in cities and what actually is important for living quality.  What would make my list, and what elements would contribute to making my number 1?  What places would I exclude, and why?  Would I make similar judgements based on metrics such as crime rates, transport access, or the amount of green space?  Some of these elements are indeed very important to me, but I think my own measurements would be more personal.  My quality of life isn’t just about education, healthcare, crime, sunshine etc… It’s about experience.  It’s about the places of meaning to me as an individual and it’s about the interconnections between these places.  Many of these take time to develop and cannot be measured or mapped on paper easily.  If I think about the continual comparisons in Australia between Melbourne and Sydney (both places I have lived), on paper using Monocle’s metrics I agree and would conclude Melbourne is preferable.  But if I think about it more personally, based on my experiences, my connections to place, and my own inner-felt quality of living, Sydney wins.  We don’t just live in cities statically, we are a part of them, and we develop unique and highly personal relationships with them.  At present, I am in a strong, loving, committed, and enjoyable relationship with Sydney, and that’s something a survey cannot measure.

For the complete list of Monocle’s 25 best places to live in the world, check out this video.


The oddity of the stationary escalator

London Underground – Photo by Billy Haworth

When going about our daily routines in the city certain things become repetitive and mundane, and often tweaking this regularity can cause a moment of confusion in our minds. An action that is normally so automatic can become highly noticeable in an abnormal circumstance, such as stepping onto a stationary escalator. Every time this happens it baffles me. I approach the escalator, I see that it’s not in operation, and I think I have adjusted my gait accordingly to descend quite naturally what are now essentially stairs in front of me. But what actually happens feels very unnatural indeed! An awkward sort of near-trip occurs and I struggle to readjust and carry on down the motionless escalator. Something inside my body or my mind refuses to allow any amount of pre-observation and preparation to prevent this awkward moment. Even with knowledge of the escalator my body still automatically prepares for the motion of the escalator beyond my control. Why is this? Has my brain become so well-trained to it’s usual response to the visual of the escalator that it can’t operate otherwise? Is it more a muscular response, whereby some link between the eyes and the muscles is stronger than my conscious mind? How can a simple everyday object possess such psychological power over my body?

A 2009 paper addressed this exact question of action-perception linkage by asking: Does the odd sensation emerge because of the unfamiliar motor behaviour itself toward the irregular step-height of a stopped escalator or as a consequence of an automatic habitual motor program cued by the escalator itself (Takao Fukui, Toshitaka Kimura, Koji Kadota, Shinsuke Shimojo, & Hiroaki Gomi). They compared motor behaviour properties toward a stopped escalator with those toward moving escalators, and toward a wooden stairs that mimicked the stopped escalator.

“The results suggest a dissociation between conscious awareness and subconscious motor control: the former makes us perfectly aware of the current environmental situation, but the latter automatically emerges as a result of highly habituated visual input no matter how unsuitable the motor control is. This dissociation appears to yield an attribution conflict, resulting in the odd sensation.” – Fukei et al., 2009.

So it seems in this instance at least I am not as awkward as I may have thought, and there is an explanation for this strange occurrence. The way we as people become accustomed to ‘normals’ in surroundings is interesting, particularly when something ‘abnormal’ occurs. And I’m sure there are probably other examples of similar odd sensations experienced by our interactions with the places around us, such as the feeling of motion experienced whilst sitting in a stationary train and seeing another train passing by. So if you find yourself one day awkwardly approaching a motionless escalator, you can take some comfort knowing there’s an explanation for your odd behaviour.

Painted Traffic Signal Boxes: A new solution to an old problem?

Junction box street art by Cassette Lord, Brighton – Photo by Billy Haworth

One of my favourite places to visit for a day trip out of London is Brighton. Brighton is a small city by the seaside in the south of England with an ‘alternative’ reputation. One of the reasons I like it so much is the fantastic display of graffiti and street art on offer. Brighton is a place that acknowledges the role street art plays in forming it’s urban identity and, rather than removing all graffiti as ‘vandalism’, embraces this. On my last visit one of the first things I noticed as I left the train station was a painted traffic junction box. It wasn’t just a group of tags like I may have come to expect around city railway lines, but a piece of artwork covering the entire box. Clearly this work was authorized, and as I ventured through the city during the day I saw more and more of these junction box artworks. I thought they were great, and had read about these types of council initiatives, but had never observed them all over an area like this before. Of course, I wanted to know more. I found out the signal boxes in Brighton began with local street artist, Cassette Lord. On his website Cassette Lord says the idea to stencil the junction boxes came about when a youth group finished a mural they noted the only part uncovered was the green junction box in front.

“The boxes were mainly ignored and often a bit scruffy, we agreed this would be a great way to liven them up and give people something cool to look at and add to Brighton,” (Cassette Lord).

Painted junction boxes, Brighton – Photos by Billy Haworth

The first time I came across the notion of painting traffic signal boxes was during the course of researching graffiti management strategies and patterns in Sydney, Australia. The example of painting traffic signal boxes came from Brisbane, QLD.  The initiative Artforce, established in 1999, aims to reduce the recurrent costs of graffiti removal by inviting local artists and residents to help decorate the boxes. A report by Catherine Ovenden (2007) evaluating the efforts of this strategy over a seven year period found that the reduction of graffiti on painted compared to unpainted boxes was consistent across Brisbane, with unpainted boxes accumulating graffiti three times faster than painted traffic signal boxes (Haworth et al., 2013). On the surface then it appears the introduction of Brisbane’s “drive-through gallery” has had significant positive impacts. In terms of graffiti management, however, measures of success that focus only on reduction of graffiti have limitations, namely they fail to distinguish between different types of graffiti or to take account of the evolving dynamics of graffiti writing (See my recent paper: ‘Spatio-temporal analysis of graffiti occurrence in an inner-city urban environment‘).

Other cities around the world too have adopted this initiative. Melbourne in Australia has followed in the footsteps of Brisbane’s Artforce, introducing painted traffic signal boxes in a number in inner city suburbs in the hope that they will “reduce graffiti, provide opportunities for local artists and enhance local streets with new and vibrant art,” (City of Yarra).  Tauranga City council in New Zealand claim “beautifully painted roadside artworks reduce the likelihood of them being tagged, while making a beautiful and intriguing creative feature in the urbanscape of the city,” (Tauranga City).  The Painted Utility Box program in the city of Calgary, Canada, similarly aims to discourage graffiti vandalism by providing public space for original community art.

These initiatives are centred on the same core goal: to reduce graffiti ‘vandalism’.  And that is where my problem with this approach lies. When exactly is graffiti ‘vandalism’ and when is it ‘art’? Who decides this? These initiatives are based on the assumption that all graffiti that might occur on these traffic signal boxes or elsewhere is ‘vandalism’ not worthy to remain on the traffic boxes, and the community pieces are ‘beautiful’ because they are ‘art’.  The issue I have is that everyone has differing views on graffiti; what they like, what they don’t like, what is appropriate, what is not, what is graffiti, what is art, and so on. These initiatives ignore that graffiti is a diverse subculture.  I fail to see how taking even more space away from someone wanting space to write will be an effective approach. Perhaps rather than creating spaces where people cannot write, authorities should focus more on providing spaces where they can write, thus discouraging writing in unwanted spaces.

One comfort I take from the Brighton example is that at least the program was started by a street artist already writing on the streets aiming to add to the existing urban aesthetic, and not by a councillor in an office who is unlikely to have much experience of graffiti culture beyond the view of it as crime in their community. I don’t mean to say community art projects are not welcome. Of course they are great for many different reasons, and many of the works I’ve seen on traffic boxes, particularly those by Cassette Lord, are really awesome! And I would certainly say that I prefer an approach to graffiti management that aims to exhibit local art as opposed to those many cities adopt that simply remove all graffiti as vandalism. I do question, however, the long-term success of a strategy to reduce graffiti that fails to understand the fundamentals of what graffiti culture is, and the diversity that comes with it. I suppose only time will tell.

The green amongst the urban

New York’s Central Park – aerial view (image:

Green spaces in urban environments are well known to offer a wide range of benefits for people and the environment.  They offer an escape for city inhabitants away from their often tiring normal routines. One of the things I find most pleasing about living in London is the abundance of parks and reserves, making green space and a little bit of nature easily accessible from almost anywhere within the city’s vast limits.  In fact, in most cities I’ve lived or visited I’ve come to appreciate time spent in green space.  An immediate benefit of green space apparent to me is space for recreation and leisure.  Whether it be kayaking down London’s Regent’s Canal, a football game with mates after school at the local common, or a formal exercise session in the city centre for fitness enthusiasts; green spaces make the perfect venues.  Green spaces also provide a place for relaxation and peacefulness, often comprising of tranquil ponds or lakes and beautiful gardens to explore. They contribute positively to the environment in areas such as climate change and biodiversity, and offer a place for wildlife to live and flora to grow, often including native or rare species.  The flying foxes hanging from the tree tops in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and the grazing Deer in Richmond Park in London are particular favourite examples of mine.  Personally, I have also found joy in the cultural and historical significance of particular green spaces, such as the haunting sculptures of artist Gustav Vigeland in Oslo, or the rich heritage of Greenwich Park in London.

Regent’s Canal, London.                                              Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.
Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, Oslo.                                  Greenwich Park, London.

I have a theory that my well-being is greatly improved by interactions with green space and the natural environment, and it turns out I’m not the only one with this view.  You don’t have to research very deeply to find a number of academic articles investigating and supporting this notion.  Nina Morris (2003) reports that urban green spaces are now widely recognised as major contributors both to the quality of the environment, and to human health and well-being in inner city and suburban areas.  A study in the Netherlands investigated whether the presence of green space can provide a buffer against negative health impacts of stressful life events, determining that health complaints were significantly moderated by the amount of green space in a three kilometre radius (Berg et. al., 2010).  Similarly, statistical analysis by Mass et. al., (2006) of people registered with 104 Dutch general practices revealed that the percentage of green space inside a one kilometre and a three kilometre radius had a significant positive association with perceived general health.  Mitchell and Popham (2008) explored the effects of exposure to natural environments on heath inequality, noting that populations exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation.  Mitchell and Popham (2006) also reported that while in general a higher proportion of green space in an area is associated with better health, the association is dependent on the degree of urbanity and level of income deprivation in an area.  Results of a 2009 study (Lafortezza et. al.) indicate that longer and frequent visits to green spaces generate significant improvements of perceived well-being.  The study focused on physical and psychological benefits associated with the use of green spaces on people in the UK and Italy when heat stress episodes are more likely to occur.  And finally, Fuller and Gaston (2009) following their study of green space coverage in European cities, reported broadly that benefits of urban green spaces range from physical and psychological health to social cohesion, ecosystem service provision and biodiversity conservation.  I imagine with further research there would appear countless more examples supporting the idea of urban green space being associated with improved well-being.  But for the moment it is clear enough that the benefits are well documented.

Pondering my love of green spaces, I cannot help but ponder also the future of these areas.  With increasing populations and more people living in cities in the world than ever before, and increased demand for residential, commercial, and industrial space, will the amount of green space in our cities be compromised?  Will their size, abundance, or diversity be reduced?  Will we have to travel increasingly farther to get our nature fix?  Will green spaces become restricted or will their maintenance become an issue?  There are already many parks and reserves in London that charge an entry or usage fee.  Will the effects of climate change have an impact?  These thoughts do scare me a little, as I believe we should cherish and preserve our green spaces.  They are an integral part of our cities and their benefits to society and the environment are plenty.  So, go on, go enjoy some green space today.

Richmond Park, London.
Photos by Billy Haworth

Leake Street graffiti tunnel: Accepted and ‘cool’.

Hidden below the chaos of London’s busy Waterloo Station lies a very different place where the interactions of the people in this bustling city are evident in a very different way. The Tunnel is an authorised graffiti area where writers can practice their craft without the fear of the societal consequences associated with writing in the majority of other places in the city. Works include anything from tags to more artistic forms of street art such as pieces or throw ups. I’ve even seen recently more elaborate forms of visual art and sculpture. Subject matters might be anything from identity or political messages to professions of love or contemporary culture. There is an image below of a great piece paying tribute to the late cultural icon, Amy Winehouse.

The thing that strikes me about this place is how ‘cool’ it appears. Speaking generally from the view of a society, why is graffiti and street art considered ‘cool’ when it’s all together in one legal place, but not when it appears in its more organic and perhaps true form on our city’s streets and walls? (Though, I know there are many people who would still consider this cool, and some even cooler simply for its illegal nature). Is it a bit ‘not in my backyard’, whereby people don’t care what is going on as long as it isn’t in their own space or interest? The ‘broken windows’ concept proposed by Wilson & Kelling in 1982 is also worth mentioning here. The concept states that a broken window left unrepaired gives a sense to the community that nobody cares, leading to more broken windows. Similarly, leaving graffiti unchecked can lead to an increase in graffiti in the area, thus adding to a feeling of disorder and disrepair. Perhaps with graffiti contained in one place that is not somebody’s personal space these fears are reduced. I admit, even I probably wouldn’t appreciate someone defacing my home.

But I still think there is a place for graffiti in our cities, and the simple existence of a space like The Tunnel shows that some people at least acknowledge that. For me that is probably what I find ‘coolest’ about this place. This is especially cool when compared to other places that do not have such spaces, such as the City of Sydney LGA for example, which currently has no legal space for graffiti writing, and is so heavy-handed in its removal of graffiti that graffiti was defined on their website (2004) as “any inscription, word, figure or word design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, sprayed, painted, pasted, applied or otherwise affixed to or on any surface of any assets and includes any remnants of same such as adhesives, glues, tape, shadows or colour variations remaining after removal.”

Everyone has differing views on graffiti and street art, and often in the end that doesn’t really matter anyway. Policy makers and people with authority still make the decisions for its management, and graffiti will continue to occur anyway, whether authorised or not. In my opinion, though, I think this place is rad. I love the art, I love the juxtaposition of paint and colour with the otherwise empty, utility feel of the unused tunnel. I love the interactions you witness between people; I love watching artists paint. I love the vibe, and I love the exposure. It’s definitely one of my favourite places in London.

Photos by Billy Haworth